Shena Mackay was born in Edinburgh. She is the author of two novellas, three collections of short stories and seven novels. Her novel The Orchard on Fire was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker prize. She lives in London.
Few writers are as adept as Mackay (The Orchard on Fire ) in summing up temperament, appearance and motivation in the space of one spare, stunning sentence. Here her gimlet eye focuses on a dozen London characters whose relationship to Lyris Crane, the eponymous artist's widow, brings them into juxtaposition. In addition to mourning the recent death of her husband, John, Lyris fears the loss of her own creativity as a painter. She suffers through a posthumous show of John's last works in an acid-etched scene in which establishment figures of the British art world and untalented and opportunistic wannabes mingle and try to impress each other. Lyris's great-nephew Nathan Pursley, a louche, ignorant and nervy fellow who styles himself a conceptual artist, is part of a circle of self-indulgent, obnoxious, vulgar young artists whom Mackay skewers with rapier wit. Other characters come from a range of Britain's social classes. Although most of them exhibit a credible mix of foibles, pretensions and misplaced love, one or two verge on caricature. Besides Lyris, the only likable characters are a working-class couple whose kindness to Lyris reflects true gentility of spirit, and a bookstore owner adrift in indecision. The plot affords a panoramic view of the lives of these representative Londoners during the stifling August that preceded the death of Princess Di. As her characters experience the insecurities of youth, the crises of the middle years and the regrets of old age, Mackay explores the issues of artistic creativity, moral values and friendship. She writes in language as quick and lethal as a snake's tongue; the best scene is a dinner party where everybody behaves badly and the dialogue is hilarious. No startling life passages occur here, just a not-so-gentle sliding from one stage to another. The sadness at the narrative's core is beautifully controlled; the wit is buoyant. (July)